Ford & Co. in Mexico

Christoph Huber

The Fugitive, John Ford’s most religious melodrama, was shot in Mexico. Ford’s own behaviour on his frequent boat trips to the country was somehwat less saintly, if not without its blessed moments.

The Fugitive (1947): Ward Bond as "The Gringo".
The Fugitive (1947): Ward Bond as “The Gringo”

The Fugitive (1947) is somewhat notorious as John Ford’s artiest film, and often despised by Fordians for its heavy-handedness and symbolism, even as nobody can deny the visual beauty which Ford always invoked in its defense. For the screenplay, Dudley Nichols had suggested to turn Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory into “an allegory of a passion play”, and it shows–not even considering the censorship problems.

It is remarkable that Ford would turn to this Greene book: The author’s juicy pan of Ford’s Wee Willie Winkie (1937)–or more precisely: his devastating observations on child star Shirley Temple’s dubious sex appeal–had caused considerable controversy back then and led to a lawsuit and Greene’s Mexican sojourn, during which he could do the research for the very novel Ford would adapt–but that’s another story. It is even more remarkable that Ford shot his passion play in Mexico of all places, even as the film is set (allegorically, but also diplomatically) in some unspecified Latin American country under totalitarian rule. Mexico, after all, was Ford’s preferred destination for dionysical revelries on boat tours with his circle of closest friends.

Thanks to the master of Ford’s boat Araner, a man named Goldrainer and blessed with a knack for terse prose, we have a good idea of how those went. Joseph McBride, in his authoritative biography Searching for John Ford: A Life reproduces this from the ship’s log for New Year’s Eve 1934:

1:18 p.m. Went ashore–got the owner, Fonda, Wayne, and Bond out of jail. Put up bond for their behavior.
9:30 p.m. Got the owner, Fonda, Wayne, and Bond out of jail again. Invited by Mexican officials to leave town.

The following day Goldrainer notes:

Owner went to mass–brought priest to Araner–purpose to sign pledge [to quit drinking]: pledge signed–celebrated signing of pledge with champagne, later augmented with brandy …

Henry Fonda as "A Fugitive"  in The Fugitive
Henry Fonda as “A Fugitive” in The Fugitive